For her first step into arena-level touring, Alicia Keys has retained the heart and soul of her theater shows while adding a bit of window dressing that does not always sit right. Keys’ artistry still glistens at the core of this presentation, cluttered in the early going and liberating toward the end, of nearly two dozen songs, all of which are given her full attention vocally.
It’s a transition show, her first with dancers and production numbers that require her to leave the comfort of the piano bench behind. Keys is not a dancer, but she is a trooper, so rather than present her songs in stillness, she joins in with exaggerated stepping that sometimes played as goofy Monday at a sold-out Staples Center, the ninth show on her 30-date North American tour.
Her songs balance the confident and the vulnerable, and fortunately, she and her creative team have not masked any of the tunes in dressing up some of them. But they have designed an opening that is brimming with diva-esque attitude and presents Keys as a product of “the star maker,” an odd concept introduced on film with Cedric the Entertainer in a preacher role. It puts Keys in a strange place for about a half-hour: For half the house that has been attending her club and theater shows since she broke through with “Fallin'” in 2001, this is out of character and a reach, a disguise of sorts that does not quite fit her. For the other 50% or so who attend large-scale R&B shows, this is Keys falling in step with other modern performers and delivering a bit of spectacle to hold the audience’s attention.
The concept is so ill-fitting, Keys apparently does not even have a song suitable for the opening; she uses the reggaeton-styled “Ghetto Story,” a track she cut with Baby Cham, to open the night on a decidedly alien note. The buoyant “Teenage Love Affair,” the song from her current “As I Am” album that works best dressed up, would work far better in the lead-off spot, where it could become one of the evening’s star attractions; as it is now, it gets lost five songs in.
The emphasis on spectacle has a curious effect on the moments when Keys heads back to the piano. The first time she takes her place at the keys, she precedes it with a bit of sing-shouting in which she attempts to gauge whether the audience wants her to play piano. The answer is a very obvious yes; the ploy veers dangerously close to cliched use of “everybody scream.”
The baby grands — one white, one black — are not allowed to just sit onstage. They slide in and out of the scenery and out of the floor on hydraulics, a fanfare of sorts that signals a “significant dramatic song” is about to be performed. “How Come You Don’t Call Me,” from her first album, is one of those tunes, and it is the emotionally raw highlight of the night.
But Keys is so at ease behind the piano that the memory of the gaudy presentation quickly fades, and she goes about being a singer at the keyboard on a platform that slowly spins to give the aud a 360- degree view. (An electric keyboard sits at stage left, and there’s no drama when she steps behind it. That naturalness is too much of a contrast to the other presentations.)
Of the nine songs performed from “As I Am,” which has sold 3.4 million copies since its November release, three receive excellently framed perfs: “Prelude to a Kiss” has been transformed into a call to action to help fight AIDS in Africa; “Superwoman” is played solo at the white piano at the end of a catwalk that extends to the 20th row on the floor; and a majestic reading of “No One” closes the pre-encore portion of the two-hour show. Those moments testify to the consistency and power of Keys, a rarity in modern pop music.
Keys performs at Madison Square Garden on June 18.